Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Flying ships

Today I read Graham a great book, adopted from a Russian fairy tale, about the Fool of the World who sets out from his village to build a flying ship and thereby win the princess's hand and -- by virtue of his generosity -- gets totally hooked up by this magic dude with a flying ship.  He then collects a motley crew of other magic dudes who sing a lot and they go out and, by God, win the princess's hand.  Very nicely drawn, clearly the basis for the Baron von Munchhausen tales (though minus the teenage Uma Thurman).  

This book made me want to go back to Russia, Putin notwithstanding, and also irrespective of my fears that I'll be hassled at the border because of the mild industrial espionage I at length extricated myself from last autumn.  We may just see.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Once more on the curses of Redmond

So I blogged earlier about signing up for Hotmail Plus and what a pain it was to try to get it to work. I ended up setting up a second Yahoo account and, while I had to send batches to get around spamming restrictions (this was not spam. This was legit bulk email), I got what I needed to do done in 45 minutes or so while watching sports.

Now I've gone back to Microsoft to try to get my 20 bux back, and it's like something out of Kafka. It's like dealing with the Federal government. The workflow is bass ackwards inane. Links go to dead pages. It's pathetic. I've had some very bad experiences with Microsoft over the years, but this ranks right up there with the worst of them.


As the crisis draws on I find that I have little life experience (save for a B-list celebrity spotting on Nassau St today -- Melrose Place's Andrew Shue) to blog about. And much of my writing effort, too much, has flown to another of my online avatars: "Ruckmaker", under which name I do battle with the short-sellers and libertarian loonies on Marketwatch's comment boards. It is a relatively victimless addiction, as it's entirely zipless discourse, but still.

I have earlier characterized the voices of the messageboards as "demons," and I don't think that's entirely wrong, but the question is are they my demons or are they shared. "Stock up on ammo," "Obama is a commie","Go long gold", "S & P 350," this is the kind of stuff that floats by on the boards. Some of it is more cogent and disturbing, other is less cogent and disturbing, mostly it's disturbing. Which is why I fight it.

Also because there's a scoreboard.

Friday, March 27, 2009


I have to say that it's interesting that Jim Chanos's Coalition of Private Investment Companies is empowered to speak for the hedge fund industry to any extent. The Managed Funds Association is a much longer-standing industry organization, and has, unlike Chanos's group, a web site.

This is not to say anything against Chanos or Kynikos. He, after all, was instrumental to say the least in bringing Enron down and has long been a forthright and articulate advocate for short-selling amongst other practices. I sometimes disagree with him, but am rarely better informed than him. I just wish he'd bring some transparency to the CPIC if it is to become an influential lobbying arm.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A couple of things that suck

  1. The Riverside School in Princeton conducts "code blue" exercises to prepare for the extremely unlikely eventuality of a shooter incident at a freakin elementary school. Members of the pre-K class were ushered into the bathroom, where the lights were turned off and they were told to hide. This is for four and five year olds, mind you. Rank idiocy which is not shared by other elementary schools in the same system, and Principle Michael Cirullo has been apprised of his stupidity in person.

  2. I created a hotmail account so I could send out messages related to an upcoming high school reunion, and Microsoft wants to hassle me about how many messages I can send out to prove I'm not a spammer. I was stupid. I should have known to just set up another yahoo or gmail account. Avoid the curses of Redmond whenever you may.

The permanent campaign

The Economist recently dubbed Obama's leveraging of his campaign machine from the White House "the permanent campaign," and it sure feels like it. While I think it's great that he's trying to stay in touch with his peeps, I think it's getting old.

Fact is, I don't form my opinions first and foremost based on what campaigns say. That's what the press is for -- to offer viewpoints and help us form opinions. And the press is having a hard time right now. The idea has been floated, for instance, to make newspapers endowed not-for-profits.

So if the Obama campaign has extra cash, I think it should use it as seed capital to form a fund of funds for newspapers, or perhaps just to support the trusty and beloved New York Times, which doesn't have a Rupert Murdoch to prop it up. David Swensen of the Yale Endowment, who has publicly called for the NGO route for papers, should pony up some dough too. And money should be raised from the right wing too to keep things "fair and balanced."

We don't need emails telling us to call our Congresspeeps and read a script. We need good reporting.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Man on Wire

I thought we had Disc 3 of Season 1 of The Wire in from Netflix, but it turned out we had Man on Wire, a documentary about Philippe Pettite, the David Bowie looking muthafucka who strung up a wire between the Twin Towers in 1974 and walked between them. It was a good film, but the film itself pales beside the still archival footage of the walk, which is itself a pale shadow of its idea. Without a doubt, the most absurd and singular thing anyone has ever done. Most likely.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Was recently looking at photographs of single narrow row houses in Belgium set off in the middle of fields, built there and like that because of restrictive stipulations tied to land grants to farmers,i.e. “you may build a house with a 8 x 10 meter footprint and no more than two stories.”  Very odd.


Today coming past North Elizabeth on the train, looking at fully detached houses whose eaves are within six inches of one another, you have to wonder how that came about.  It’s so energy inefficient not to share the common wall, it just cries out at you.  Are they detached because of market forces and the deep seated American dream of owning one’s own four walls, or because of regulation?  It makes me just want to wade in there with a bunch of fiberglass batting and plug the gaps.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Cap a banker

Maybe the storm has died down, but last week it felt for sure that one of these days, an investment banker's gonna get capped by some pitchfork-wielding outraged populist, and then Obama will inevitably get on TV and give a cathartic calm down speech which will heal the wounds that run deep. And, since it's gonna happen, the government might as well arrange it so it happens right. So handpick some onerous AIG exec and have a deep subterranean FBI operative (maybe one of Jack Bauer's team) to blow the guy's head off with a shotgun outside the WaWa's in Wilton and then disappear into the either.

Or, as I said, maybe the storm has passed and this only makes sense as a TV show.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dostoevskii's notebooks, 1872

Going through some boxes of books I happened upon a handwritten (by me) card, transcribed from Fiodor Mikhailovich himself:

"Each of you is dashing along in a cab, prodding the coachman on the back to get you home fast.  You keep rushing along in the coach, the coachman keeps prodding his poor innocent nag, but the horse is dodging away from his driver and, alas, does not know what literature is.

In passing you envy his innocence and are aware of your duty to him as that of the rich class towards the common folk.

But the idyllic feelings are replaced by furies."

I will note in passing that I had quit drinking long before I wrote this.  The shit is deep.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Ruth Rendell

Have taken up yet another Ruth Rendell mystery, of which I've probably read 15-20 by now. Definitely best in class.  In times of drive and great yearning I find that the small town life on which she so thrives stifles me as it does her characters, and I sense that reading these books is just marking time on the way to death.  But now, as the crisis drags on interminably and so much of the future remains unsettled, there is great comfort in her ordered universe and the little irruptions that rend its fabric, and in the dutiful workings of Inspectors Wexford and Burden, who bring resolution to all.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Lay off Geithner

It is bizarre that the Times should have to run a cover story today saying that there's a crisis of confidence around Geithner because of the AIG bonuses, like he should have seen it. First off, Obama should never have jumped in on that subject, he's debasing the office of the Presidency a little bit. Secondly, it's not the job of the Secretary of the Treasury to micromanage agreements entered into before he took the job.

Not that I have anything against lynching AIG Financial Products. I just think the task should be delegated appropriately.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Why no UHO on Wall St?

Have been spending most of my time on Wall St of late, so on a recent foray into MidTown, I was struck by the presence of money collecting tables for the UHO, or United Homeless Organization, which are always topped by the UHO's signature water jugs - the 10 gallon variety of water cooler fame. And then it struck me: you don't see these down on Wall St. Which is odd, as midtown is no less dominated by finance, really. Are people down there really so stingy? I for one would give.

I think I know how a lot of people out there would answer that question right about now, and I have to say, the evidence supports them.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Penn Station, morning rush

The other day as I was passing from Penn Station to the subway I fell in behind a perky little blonde wearing some variant of those stupid fleece lined muk muk boots that all the teenagers and 20-somethings are wearing, some sort of a business suit, and on her back a knapsack with a little umbrella with an Izod logo on it. How precious, I thought. Then I saw that her knapsack had an AIG logo on it. That one I would have left at home. But that's just me.

Monday, March 16, 2009

They buy your car by phone!

Enjoying a 45 dollar cab ride through lovely Jersey City, listening to 1010 WINS. One ad promses to but used cars sight unseen with one of the best monosyllabic mnemonics I've heard in a long time: "They buy your car by phone," repeated 4 times in a thirty second spot with the URL carcash.com. Unfortunately, the phone number wasn't as memorable.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

PATH Train, Journal Square, 11:46am

After getting stuck first in traffic leaving Princeton, then behind a municipal tractor in Plainsboro, making me miss my train, now I'm on the PATH. The train is however, stuck indefinitely because of a police action related to someone who jumped off a bridge in front of our train, whereupon he/she was struck dead. Creating a nasty smell, like when you burn hair, only more.

Not a good day.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Friday, March 13, 2009


Natalie continues to complain about taking showers, claiming that it takes too long, keeps her away from her reading. Of course, the fact is that she gets in the shower and stays there forever, humming little tunes like "Deck the Halls" over and over again.

The dismal scientists

The Wall Street Journal reports today that a bunch of economists are giving Obama an "F" for his performance to date. I think what this may signal is a welcome return to normalcy in which the opinions of economists are taken with the appropriate grains of salt. I think, through the run-up to the crisis, we've all been a little frazzled and have had to seek guidance in the opinions of the various Tyler Cowens, Gregory Mankiws, Nouriel Roubinis, Robert Schillers, Alans Blinder and Krueger, Paul Krugmans, Mark Zandis and so on and so on, of the world. But now we remember clearly that they don't have all the answers. Nor, I think, should we return to the point where we malign and belittle economists for being idiots. They know their biz better than I do.

Not to say I think Obama should get an A for economics. Maybe a B/B-. The stimulus bill isn't perfect, Geithner isn't perfect and his plan isn't perfect. I like Peter Orszag a lot, personally. But imagine what we would be up to if McCain was in there with his cowboy hat and Budweiser distributorship.

In the end, this "F" grade may be viewed as a collected attempt by economists to maintain their perch at center stage of public discourse. I, for one, think that their retreat from collective glare, as well as that of the Secretary of the Treasury, will be viewed as a positive sign for all of us.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Franklin Township Municipal Building. Traffic Court, 3/12/09

Although it was Franklin Township, the Borough of Millstone was subleasing space to wring some tickets out of us unwary speeders, and the judge was just in from New Brunswick, where he had learned he had hopes of getting on some reality show about judges. Right on!

I had showed up early, as instructed, to talk to the prosecutor. I was #7 in line. This little DeVito like dude came out from the cops' area of the building in wraparound shades. Turns out he was the prosecutor. He took each of us in turn. Two were hispanic, and the prosecutor's Spanish was pretty good. Usually he chatted a little bit: "Where do you work? Where'd you get your degree from?"

There was none of that for me. Maybe because I was second to last in line, maybe because I'm a cold looking WASP. I came in there and he was like: "This is a 4-point offense, but I can make it a 0-point offense. The fine is about $400. OK?" I think you know the answer.

So we get into court, and the third guy called is this nerd who's pleading not guilty to a speeding ticket from last September. He's already requested all manner of paperwork on the radar gun etc., and now he wants the user's manual. The judge says "are we giving that out now?" The judge, a little annoyed, says "OK, we gotta call in the prosecutor, you go sit down."

And then he called me up. I kinda wanted to stick around and see how this guy got wry, low-level tongue lashing, but I had to get back to work. Alack.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Back to Entropy

I've been reading about estimates of wealth destruction in the crisis, and I must say that this whole wealth destruction thing is indeed very confusing. On the one hand, it's hard to see how even 20% can disappear if there's anything resembling a zero sum game going on: value exiting one medium of exchange should be realized in another. Even leveraged assets shouldn't be entirely spectral. Entities shouldn't be lending but so much money that they don't have (that's one thing that confuses me).

Then again, it's too facile to posit an easy dichotomy between real and imagined value. An object's value is what someone's willing to pay for it, and right now everyone's hesitant to buy anything, reducing turnover. That's what's killing us.

In the contemporary debate on value destruction in the current crisis, lots of people point out that we do still have houses, roads, bridges, and whatnot, rightly invoking the Marxist concept of "use value," which declares that things values are equal to the use we can put them to. The problem, as we are seeing, is that these assets are subject to entropy, and without capital to maintain them they will give us less use value. The real problem is that the culture and tax structure of the last decade have encouraged the storage of value in the private domain: homes, cars, luxury goods, the markers of status. These are even more volatile and subject to entropy than public works.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Relative thoughtlessness

Not much for the blog today, dog-tired from prepping the house over the weekend to get painting done, getting up early to lead a conference call, hauling my sorry ass into the city, blech.

From the consumption side, I can report that Charles Burnette's 1977 classic Killer of Sheep was very much worth watching, but not if you're in the mood for plot or character or any of that claptrap. Presages Jarmusch in its own strange way.

Today for lunch a cuban sandwich from Sophie's. Delish.

Back to work.

Friday, March 06, 2009


Read Michael Lewis's piece on Iceland in Vanity Fair.  It's interesting, funny, but for the first time I see Lewis jaded at his prodigious talent for writing.  A bon mot here, a taut one-liner there, it all just rolls off him as if he's seen it all before.  And, in some sense, he has.  It may be time for him to push himself beyond the competitive realms of finance and sports into some new domain. I'd love to read it.

Picked up some Salinger I had never heard of in Larchmont:  "Raise High the Roofbeams..." I was initially unconvinced but now am getting there.  And now off to it!

Thursday, March 05, 2009

No bull

If I hear one more moron say that the path of the markets reflects the populace's judgment of Obama's performance I'm gonna be angry. The markets reflect the market's judgment of itself. Obama's doing fine and will continue doing fine, and the markets will come along in their own good time.

I used to advocate capital punishment for crimes of capital, and I'm coming back around to that position. I think the best way to deal with the situation would be to take a cue from Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. Stalin's whole point, in Solzhenitsyn's view, was to punish people for no crimes to imbue them with an arbitrary fear of a random state.

That's how we should treat traders, both within banks and active day traders. We should just "disappear" a few of them each year. 17 one year, 479 the next, regardless of the scale of their infractions. That'll teach em to do shady shit.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Rambling man

Graham has come in and is doing some building here in the garret / study / exercise room / playroom, so I can't quite work, so I might as well blog. Today I break old school.

In human endeavors there is always a need to balance reflection and circumspection with activity. Am I doing the right thing? Does this make sense? These are very normal questions to ask yourself. When you do it too much, you get trapped in "paralysis by analysis," as the consultants like to say. The question, then, is finding the right balance between doing things and thinking about doing them.

As with individuals, so with society. America began to show less healthy skepticism starting with Reagan (this would have been on the upslope from Carter's Malaise speech) and then really threw caution to the wind once the Berlin Wall came down. We were right, dammit, history had vindicated us. Fukuyama's "End of History" came out and said that the last ideological challenge was fundamentalist Islam, and he ended up righter about that then he wanted to be for a little while.

Over in Russia, the story didn't appear so simple. Gorbachev became a villain, and there was nostalgia for the Brezhnev and even the Stalin days.

But we were off to the races with market fundamentalism (to which I myself partially succumbed). Hell, who was gonna tell us we were wrong? The French? Our own scraggly Left?

The earth, admittedly, was sending signals with sun and meltage. And all you had to do was look at all those big boxes and massive SUVs which were products of rule-skirting and you could tell something was wrong, but it was too tiresome to fight it.

And now we don't have to.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Snow day

By most measures a good day.

Did not commute.
Had Thai food from the Y at Ted and Kirsten's.
Am installing this fabulous new printer that I got at a deep discount, listening to Metal Flake Mother and scanning pix for a posting to another, more restricted blog.
And soon sleep.

So lets just call it a day. After I post a little mischeif elsewhere.